Monday, September 9, 2019

Why Airplanes "Taxi" - An Update

The verb, “to taxi” meaning “to operate an aircraft on the ground under its own power (Merriam-Webster online), was derived from nearly flightless aircraft called “taxis” or “taxi-cabs.”  The verb dates to about 1911, and the name of the training aircraft to about 1909.  For a detailed early history of the word and the training aircraft, see my post, “Flight School ‘Taxis’ – a History and Etymology of ‘to Taxi’ (like an Airplane).” 

When I wrote the earlier post, although it seemed clear that the verb was derived from the trainer, it wasn’t clear precisely why the trainer was called a “taxi” in the first place.  The traditional theory, that the verb was an “allusion to the way a taxi driver slowly cruises when looking for fares,”[i] is problematic. 

The words “taxi” and “taxicab” were themselves only a couple years old, so there was no well-established tradition of taxis cruising for fares.  And speed limits in cities where taxicabs might be hailed were typically ten to fifteen miles per hour, so “slowly” cruising wouldn’t really stand out all that much.  And in any case, what was considered “slow” then and “slow” now are two different things.  Automobiles, even ones obeying a ten mile-per-hour speed limit, were still relatively rare, novel and faster than anything that had ever even been on the street a decade or so earlier.  For a more detailed history of taxicabs, see my post, “Taximeter, Taximeter, Uber Alles – a History of the Taxicab.”

Flight, Volume 1, Number 51, December 18, 1909, page 812.

A description of flight schools at Mourmelon France in 1910 may shed some light on why their flight trainers were called taxis.  It may be related, at least in part, to the fact that the instructors took backseat passengers on rides for a fee, much like a taxicab would carry passengers for a fare. 

In paradoxical France, where, clinging to the old tenderly, they embark at the same time with most ardor on the new, men are at present taught to fly as they are taught in a ring to stick on a horse, or, at an earlier age, that two times two make four.

The time seems approaching when we shall all want to learn to use the flying machines, so that a glance at this School of Flying, which is situated at Mourmelon, near Reims, will interest.

To matriculate into the flying school is easy.  There are no difficult examinations, no vexing formalities.  You simply make a call on the Farman Freres . . . ; or on the Voisin Brothers . . .; or on M. Bleriot, or any other constructor of wings whose artificial bird you fancy.  And upon the polished mahogany table of said Farmans, Voisins, or Bleriots, you plank down modestly twenty-eight thousand francs. . . .  In return you get a smile, a receipt, a contract promising to deliver to you some time in the future a finished biplane or monoplane, and an agreement to teach you how to use it.  Upon which you are a matriculated and regular student of the flying school.  A flying freshman, in other words. . . .

After practice with the levers on a stationary dummy for a week or so, then comes the glorious day on which the freshman aviator is taken for a ride on the taxi-cab.

A winged taxi-cab!  Each of the schools has one.  It is an old and underpowered flying machine upon which the pupils can practice.  It has two seats, from each of which the levers can be worked; so that in the first attempts the master-pilot (the professor) can go up with the pupil.  The Voisin taxi-cab is so under-powered that the pupil mostly rolls about, taking now and then a little bound.  The Farman taxicab rises a bit more, but not much.  The Antoinette is full-powered, and flies as high as is demanded; but it is so arranged as to make impossible more than two turns of the great track, thus bringing back home any over-enthusiastic and vagrant-minded young student.  As for the delicate and fragile Bleriot, it is not built for two.  The pupil must go in it alone from the first.  But the tail of his big white moth is strapped down so that he cannot rise, and he must be content to run around and around, like an agitated chicken with its head chopped off.

At first the pupil is taken on the taxi-cab as a passenger.  Perched on the back seat, he has before him and under his eyes the master-pilot; he observes closely his manipulations while they make two or three turns, rolling and flying low.  At the second lesson, the pupil is allowed to place his hand gingerly above the master-pilot’s, on the lever of depth and lateral stability, thus sensing the movements.  He is then placed upon the front seat and given the rudder of direction.  They fly thus, master and pupil, the latter responsible for the direction, the former keeping to himself the more delicate and dangerous lever which decides the rise and fall and the lateral balance.

Thus, step by step, the pupil is entrusted with more and more of the manoevres, till he is left master of two directions, and finally of all three – the right and left, the up and down, the lateral balance (obtained by bending down one wing or the other, or small additional winglets at the ends of the planes).  He is then given the freedom of the taxi-cab.  He mounts it alone, master of all its directions – and caprices.  But for a period, the length of which depends on the man, he will roll around and around without rising from the ground.  Then some day he will hop up a few feet, come down, hop up again and stay a little longer, hop up and fly perhaps two hundred yards – and dream of it all night in his little bed, waiting for the next day’s dawn, and the ten-mile flights of the near future. – London Opinion.

The Province (Vancouver, British Columbia), September 17, 1910, page 18.

Because these “taxis” mostly stayed on the ground, the movement of planes on the ground became associated with the “taxis” and the act of moving airplanes on the ground became known as “taxiing.”

Several straight flights were undertaken by Paterson with the pupil Driver as passenger in a 25 mile an hour wind. To illustrate the qualified pupil, Driver took the machine over, and although he had only previously flown in a calm, he made a good flight from end to end of the ground.  On his return however things did not look so happy. . . . . [B]ut to the relief of everyone he manoeuvred cleverly, and landing near the railway embankment “taxied” the machine back to the hangars, smiling happily.

Flight, Volume 3, July 1, 1911, page 572.

The new verb did not take off immediately, but ultimately earned its wings.

It is interesting here to note that the much reprobated verb to “taxi” has official sanction.  It is a good little word, in that it is unlike any other and expresses a distinct idea, namely, that of running an aeroplane along the ground under its own power.

The Aeroplane (London), Volume 3, November 7, 1912, page 456.

The verb, “to taxi,” was finally on terra-firma – where it belongs.


  1. If this terminology does derive from early French flying schools, it should be noted that French doesn't use a verb based on "taxi" to describe the movement of airplanes on the ground. French certainly does have the noun le taxi - but French in general is less free with verbing nouns than English is, and in French they refer to planes moving on the ground as simply "rolling" or "rolling softly" - rouler doucement. I guess the "softly" part is to distinguish this kind of rolling from the rougher kind of rolling one does when taking off or landing.

    Note that while French doesn't have a verb "to taxi" they have borrowed the English word "taxiway" to refer to the "roads" at the airport where planes taxi. But they have not also borrowed "runway" to refer to where the planes roll not-so-softly - what we call a runway is une piste d'aviation.

    1. The verb, "to taxi," may very well have developed in England, but with reference to "taxi" or "taxi-cab" flight trainers first used, and named, in France. The first examples of the verb I've seen in print are in a British aeronautical magazine in 1911, as discussed in my previous post, .

      The noun, "taxi," for the training aircraft, was apparently used in France as early as 1909. The sources I've seen with the word in them are in English and Dutch, but discussing experiences in flight schools in France. But it's not clear what language the instructors were speaking, as there were a lot of English and Americans buying airplanes and learning to fly in France at the time.

      Interestingly, I also ran across an article about how popular Esperanto was among some early pilots at the French flying schools.

      The expression, "taxi-auto," for an automobile for hire, seems to have been dominant in France at the time, but I have seen a couple examples of "taxi," standing alone, in French sources published in in 1909 and 1910.

  2. "taxi-auto" would have been used to distinguish a motorcar from a horse-drawn taximeter cab. Horse-drawn taxis became pretty rare at some point . . .